Oct 16, 2023

Curator’s Choice: Black Queer Artists Embrace Figurative Art on Their Own Terms

Curator's Choice is a monthly guest curator series featuring collections of artworks and essays by rising and leading voices in the arts, or in culture more broadly. The featured artworks are all available on Artsy.

How can Black artists—especially Black queer and trans artists—create figurative work that puts their subjectivity at the center? It's an urgent question that goes beyond just aesthetics. The cultural shift towards including Black perspectives that has happened in the past few years too often feels like platitudes: an illusory commitment made through PR-motivated language and vague ideas rather than sustainable material change. With this cultural grappling have come hollow ideas of what it means to represent Black life.

As Black artists too often continue to be seen by the mainstream as a form of social currency, many are choosing to opt out of this insidious version of representation. Artists who are Black and queer and trans likewise endure multiple intersecting experiences of this harmful flattening process, so, for many, the recentering of interiority is a means of representing a fullness of Black life. For these artists, being truly seen with specificity—by both your kin as well as oneself—is a salve, offering a sense of safety and care. This curated selection of artists points to the ways that transformational figurative practices can be a means of rejecting the easy legibility required by the wider culture.

The work of Philadelphia-born and -based artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase is directed both inward and outward in just this way. Working in sculpture, video, installation, and on paper, Chase foregrounds and affirms Black queer, femme, and gender-expansive subjectivity with grace. In Cold Dark embrace (2020), one of several of the artist's muslin canvas works, two figures embrace under a black starry sky. Their eyes are closed as they seem to find home in this moment of seeing and being seen, the kind of care and affection that Black queer folks so often offer to one another. This work engages its audience through portraying a kind of mutual recognition that is dependent on a shared lived experience.

Love charged shore mouth to mouth (2021) likewise evokes the full breadth of queer intimacy. Two sailors kiss against the backdrop of a black expanse, and an ornate field of red covers the lower portions of their bodies. Here, Black queer sexuality is centered but rebuffs traditional viewing. Instead, the image of these bodies in relation to one another remains unseen to outsiders, a call for an active, queer subjectivity beyond the limits of the conventionally representable. As in Cold Dark embrace, queer Black life is depicted within a cosmos of blackness on the canvas, lovingly released from strict representational taxonomies and context into a liberatory and amorphous space.

The hand-beaded tapestries of New York–based textile artist Qualeasha Wood are self-portraits of the artist herself, often presented as a religious idol. Creating textiles out of digital images, Wood's reframed self-portraits complicate the racialized and gendered hierarchy of looking. These works also critique the ways that the labor and cultural production of Black femmes has been historically exploited.

For example, a halo of cursor arrows in Click (2023) makes Wood's image a focal point for the viewer. However, by using iconography drawn from millennial-era internet culture as well as displacing conventional spatial orientation, the work avoids the consumptive violence of the historically misogynoir-ist gaze. Continuing this practice of refusal, Wood is known for her practice of digitally layering multiple images and words underneath the observable plane of her work. The final tapestries, as seen by the public, remain fully unknowable (and, likewise, inconsumable) to all but their maker.

Working in defiance of the expectations of photography, Los Angeles–based artist Paul Mpgai Sepuya similarly subverts the act of looking in his meticulously constructed studio-based portraiture. Sepuya's own community is often the subject of his highly intentional work—friends and lovers are often shown, visually fragmented, or abstracted through props, framing, and manipulation of the photographic plane. A Sitting for Matthew (2015) is typical of Sepuya's process, as it disrupts the viewer's access to the scene through the use of mirrors, creating a renegotiated point of view.

The likewise conceptual work Figure (_2100799) (2017) takes another approach to disturb the conventional field of vision. Here, a triangular blue expanse interrupts the act of observing the figure, creating something like a shield. This layering of materials abstracts the body into a more transcendental form that evades fixed definitions. As in Sepuya's practice as a whole, the relationship between artist, sitter, viewer, art space, and work itself remains continually mediated.

In his sculptures, installations, and lens-based practice, artist Shikeith uses light, space, and durational techniques to create ecstatic images. Kris (in blue) (2021) utilizes portraiture as a means to convey multiplicity, by overlaying one photograph with another to expand still imagery into multiple planes of space and time. It's a visually kaleidoscopic approach that honors the work's figure as an immaterial, almost fantastic, photographic trace.

Works like A Missed Prayer and Brush your Blues (both 2017) take a more corporeal approach, portraying shared physicality as a reference to intimacy, as well as a form of figurative shapeshifting. These photographs ask us: Who are we when we welcome the vulnerability of communion? What possibilities are opened up through queer acts of tenderness?

These artists recast what it means to be represented—to see and be seen as both artwork and creator. In doing so, they continue the long-standing tradition of Black queer artmaking that offers itself fully only to those who exist within a shared plane of experience. Much like the Black, queer, and trans cultural figures who came before, these artists create new possibilities through their radical engagement with space, time, and form, resisting co-optation by the so-called dominant viewer. Here, figurative practices are one of several ways that the unbounded worlds of Black queer life can be cultivated and protected.

Sarah-Tai Black (they/them) is an arts curator and critic born and (mostly) raised in Treaty 13 Territory/Toronto whose work aims to center Black, queer, trans, and crip futurities and freedom work.